‘He showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. Jn 20.19‑22
This is an unexpected story. And not just how Jesus can appear in a room that is locked and bolted from the inside. I am thinking of the fact that he appears to his disciples still physically scarred. Wouldn’t you expect such a body – revealed in victory on the other side of death and mortal frailties – to be whole and without blemish? But not only is his body scarred, it is by those wounds his disciples recognise him and are overcome with joy.
But here they are, still visible, on the body of the risen, all‑conquering, victorious Christ.
The cross, it seems, has left Christ wounded for eternity.
Those wounds also make clear that resurrection life never moves on from the cross as if it can be left behind. Resurrection life is none other than the way of the cross.
So the first thing those wounds do is unite Easter Day to Good Friday. They are the scars of the cross. The one who is risen is the one who was crucified.
Those five scars – his feet, hands and side, from spear and nails ‑ have come to symbolise all Christ’s earthly sufferings.
The other gospels follow a more linear, chronological version of these events – incarnation, suffering, cross, resurrection and (in Luke/Acts) ascension. This can result in an unhelpful separation of Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost as if faith is a process of progressive stages, moving Good Friday to Easter, from suffering to victory.
John’s gospel avoids this by including Pentecost in this resurrection story. Here the risen Christ is recognized by the wounds of crucifixion, breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples and commissions them with the continuation of his own work. ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. Incarnation, suffering, cross, resurrection and Spirit-giving are held together.
But this insight is often missing in the words and songs of much popular worship where wounded life and risen life are treated separated. The indexes of Christian hymn and song books illustrate this tendency. There are sections on the suffering and cross of Christ and sections on Resurrection and Ascension. But very few resurrection hymns or songs celebrate the risen and wounded Christ. This tends to separate Christ’s resurrection life from his earthly life, suffering and death. Before and after, as the Easter hymn line unfortunately suggests, ‘The head that once was crowned with thorns, is crowned with glory now’.
Almost alone of all the established hymn writers, Charles Wesley returns again and again to celebrate Christ risen and wounded. Central to his vision of the returning Christ at the end of time are the marks of the cross.
Those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears,
source of endless exultation,
to his ransomed worshippers,
with what rapture,
gaze we on those glorious scars.
The hope of resurrection is found precisely here. For if there are no marks on the risen Jesus then resurrection is only for the unmarked. But if Christ rises with, not from, the marks of this wounded and wounding world then we may too. Our renewing and transfiguring can begin from exactly where we are.
The wounds of the risen Jesus are also significant for our vision of his ascended presence in heaven. In Luke’s gospel, where the Ascension is the final resurrection appearance, Jesus ‘lifted up his hands and blessed them’ (Lk 24.51). These would be the same scarred hands by which the disciples had earlier come to recognise him. These are the hands which bless as he ascends in the same glorified and wounded body.
In his glorious ascension Jesus becomes for us ‘the Wounded Man in the heavens’, bearing in his own crucified body the needs and longings of this world, hands open wide before the Father’s throne. There we are held in an embrace that includes all our incompleteness, loss and brokenness.
Christ’s resurrection, revealed and recognised by his glorious scars, is the pledge of our transfiguring too – wounds and all.
On Easter night, during the vigil of resurrection, there is an ancient symbolic ritual. Five grains of incense are pressed into a large Paschal candle, symbolizing the five wounds of the cross. And as this happens these words are said:
‘By his holy and glorious wounds, may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us.